I’m not sure where to start this one – being a baby in a bus with my parents in the Basque Country? Being dragged to Scotland by my zealous mother? Getting my little white palfrey? Losing her son in a tragic accident? Pitching my whole strength against his mighty successor? Being dumped by a Scottish fiddle player? Meeting an incredible Irish guitar player? Being given a loom? Having a Swiss fairy godmother? Teaching critical thinking (all three of those in inverted commas) in a university until I alienated myself by being a little too critical? Working with students who helped me like myself? Being a resentful tenant? The realisation that I could not be a cog in someone else’s wheel? The death of the old dreams? (I don’t know what the new ones are, but living in a bus is a sort of no-compromise compromise for until the next ones take form, and will do just fine for now. It is liberating not to know one’s dreams.)
The wind is warm and this little bay looks blue and uncomplicated, but I am mesmerised by a little meeting of very shallow waves that come from 270 degrees around the slightest of sandbars and converge in an irregular twig-and-wool snowflake of the sort my mum and dad made to decorate the van in the Pyrenees for what was my second Christmas.
I was heroically on track with the the two-month smallholding packdown right until the very last evening, when, despite it’s different design and heat shield to protect from my super-go-faster-turbo-and-intercooler (cursed from the start by my oracular mechanic), the van’s starter motor no.4 sprung a sticky solanoid, just like starter motors 1, 2 and 3. Clearly I could not leave my best knight in such a hurry, and further work on the van’s innards (engine-ish, boiler) and outers (newly-crumpled bodywork and historically-rotted plywood) had me and others bodging, innovating and experimenting (I’m lucky to know the right people who won’t just go by the book but who will rewrite it expertly if it needs rewriting), and I saw parts of Plymouth I’d never had occasion to traverse in 20 years. I now know more about wiring, plumbing, solanoids, mastic, hydraulics and split voltage-sensitive relays than I did (which is easy), and the van is more sorted than it otherwise would have been had I rushed off to meet the Solstice on Lewis. (Welcome to homeowning, Eloise.)
So having missed the longest day on Lewis and hearing of Calmac strikes that meant I had to transfer my ferry ticket for 10 days hence, I decided to take the journey slowly. Even so I left at ridiculous-o’clock and indulged in a huge and imaginative free-range breakfast at the amazing new Gloucester Services (including broccoli juice – this is not any old services; like Tebay, they even sell smoked stilton), which even has flags on wooden frames that look like the remains of a jousting tournament. (Though I concede that they probably are not.) So I had decided to take the journey slowly but nonetheless was well impressed with the van’s steady 65pmh all the way to Beverley (this is fast for several tonnes of brick-shaped thing on overladen axles and cheap tyres).
I’d never heard of Beverley, but not only was it great to visit my almost-oldest friend and her about-to-be-ordained husband and charming boys who were sensitively enthralled with Murphy, we also had lunch in a square and it felt like when we were in the south of France together. Complete with bagpipes, naturally. Oh and as well as a stunning minster it has cattle grazing in the town centre and lovely common land and kind Jewsons staff who got me a sackful of sawdust for my compost loo. Good place.
Then I drove through stunning Teesdale, and thought it was the most beautiful place on earth and that I might like to live there, until I saw 106 moles strung up on a barbed wire fence. I picked some flowers and strung them up with them.
Supper in a friends’ garden near Newcastle on a high hill overlooking a big flat valley reminded me of being with them in Calvignac, in the Lot, on a stunning wisteria-terrace overlooking a flat river-valley growing tobacco (really?) and walnuts with a derelict mill and an illuminated castle on the next limestone cliff. (Rich life that I have led! Well done mum, on a shoestring!) I guess the French feelings are because I may go to Brittany in the autumn, and because of the warmth.
Lewis is dreach but the wind is warm. Ullapool even has palm trees!
So from Teesdale to Tyne I looked up Fraserburgh and Peterhead (those are references to two of my favourite John Doyle songs BTW; probably Ewan MacColl had something to do with them too) and made an unexpected visit to Findhorn, where a Devon friend was participating in a course on animal communication. I’d known of Findhorn, and though I am quite allergic to Communities with a capital C and the Enlightenment Competition, as well as to rendered suburbs, flat land and sand dunes hosting mediterranean pines, it is an interesting social experiment. Some of the wooden houses that are built more harmoniously with the surrounding flora were beautiful. A largish primer-coloured jet sits next door with the Duke of Edinburgh’s name on it. A grey 11pm sundown on the North Sea was the last moment I’d expect to have a skinny-dip, but the wind was balmy and after all this is something of a rite of passage.
And then a fairly easy drive to Ullapool, with red kites and bleak Highlands. Drivers on Scottish roads are terribly cautious of late, and numerous times I regretted pulling over courteously to wait while they cautiously passed, only to be held up by them on the next dip (I need a run-up, dammit!). And then I probably (mildly) menaced someone who pulled over for me, and when shortly after I came upon my turnoff way too fast and precious friend-made ceramics flew out of the locker with the crappy spring, I thought that it was probably instant carma.
A prolonged siesta at Ullapool meant I missed all but the last half-song of the live music in the village (but it wasn’t trad), and finishing up my tomato juice over the last half-song meant I missed what may have been a stunning sunset over the sea and the Outer Isles, if the red light on the rocks to the East was anything to go by.
Camping pretty much on the shore was great though, if grey and blustery.
On the ferry the next morning I watched the also-grey profiles of foggy headlands and moody mountains recede, the only person sitting out on the aft deck in the rain, lulled by the throbbing engines. Having felt out of touch with my mission these last liminal weeks, it is good to have the bleak Celtic moments to remind me, and after a strange absence the strains of an Irish lament brought me back.
Then of a sudden I got all into focus on a little white low-flying thing that was clearly tailing us and getting closer. ‘They’ve found me!’ The red and white helicopter took its time approaching, then hovered over my head, and dropped a coastguard on a cable onto our ship’s deck. By now we were a little crowd, applauding this spectacular show. A royal bow and the guard caught the cable again and was hoisted back up as the ‘copter did a super-smooth Hollywood veer to the fore and port side and then turned tail, off to exercise their heroics somewhere else.
Stornoway when we arrived was even dreacher than
the Yorkshire moors, Highlands or Ullapool. ‘Summer’s coming next week’, they all said – it’s now next week and I’m still waiting. An unbeautiful grey town in which you are welcomed off the ferry by Tesco (there is a little colour – blue with a touch of red), and as I headed to my gravel caravan park where I’d thought it would be a good idea to spend my first night safe in suburbia, the scabs of grey bungalows blighting the crofting land made me wonder what on earth I was doing here. Another siesta and the airport suddenly got noisy with ferocious jets. Fuming, I peered through the yellowing perspex of one of my bedroom windows and wondered grumpily at the purple-red cloud and then realised that the invasion was by the Red Arrows. Are these the Chivenor ones, from my town of birth, to welcome me here? The world is strange!
And then the speed-delve into Stornoway, where the posh but friendly Harris Tweedshop with Ian Lawson’s stunning book, a great film, beautiful fabrics and the weaving songs book too; the grotto-like bazaar that is the Loom Centre with the eccentric pair (one white-haired Leoisaich man, one Indian/Pakistani/Spanish/Irish Scots woman) who sell me tweed offcuts to make bunting for the bus and, along with the Wool 4 Ewe lady, sell me some Harris Tweed yarns and know the character who sells it for tuppence on eBay; the long-lost Italian scamorza; the trad sessions research (they are numerous) and the quick picnic in the castle grounds, all remind me exactly why I am here.
And now supper on this little Greenland-facing beach that I have all to myself. Frosted oraches, or perpetual spinach, from the pebbly upper shore of Ullapool, with garlicky tomato, rice and melted cheddar.
PS I just closed the laptop and looked out the window. MIDGES! I wonder whether the Gaelic class I booked today will teach me how to say ‘fuck off’ in a way that they understand.